Film star with a cause

La Bodeguita del Medio is a crowded bar in Old Havana, once a bohemian haunt, now a tourist trap with a three-piece band playing Cuban standards in the corner. It still serves good rum cocktails, though. Indeed, its walls are covered with graffiti written by the many happy drinkers served since La Bodeguita first opened in 1942. “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita,” scribbled Ernest Hemingway. “Best place to get drunk,” is Errol Flynn’s pithier verdict.

Flynn – the swashbuckling star of Captain Blood (1935) and Adventures of Don Juan (1948) and a hell-raising hedonist – was a habitué of Cuba’s bars, casinos and fleshpots in the days when Havana was known as the “Paris of the Caribbean”. The Hollywood icon often stopped at the island en route to his Jamaican ranch. “The Cubans, particularly the playboy millionaire class there, live a special life. I like it,” Flynn wrote in My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959), his posthumously published autobiography.

The revolution of the late 1950s brought to an end the louche world that Flynn celebrated – and, eventually, criticised. Indeed, by 1958 the star had, like many others, become infatuated with the romance of Fidel Castro and his bearded revolutionaries fighting the despised dictator Fulgencio Batista from a rebel base in the Sierra Maestra, and was sufficiently moved to make a 50-minute documentary of the moment. Recently rediscovered in the Rank laboratory where it lay unwatched for almost five decades, Cuban Story has just been re-released in the UK.

Of the more than 50 films that Flynn made, Cuban Story is not among the best. Presented by the star, then 49 and haggard from a lifetime of abuse, and produced by Victor Pahlen, a drinking companion who owned a local film business called Fenix Productions, this phoenix rising from the ashes of Flynn’s career is, nonetheless, a rare chronicle of a defining moment in world history, as well as a Hollywood star’s near-redemption.

The film opens with Flynn, looking puffy-faced and hungover, wearing a half-unbuttoned shirt, smoking a cigarette and mopping his face with a handkerchief.

Castro and Errol Flynn (back left), 1959

“Hi everyone. Excuse me, it is hot here,” he says, addressing the camera. “But wait until I show you something. Then you will feel hot too.” He picks up a globe of the world, jabbing his finger at the Caribbean. “You see this little speck down here? Well, that’s the island of Cuba,” he says. “It may be small. But recently it has grown very big in the hearts of men who love liberty the world over.”

Flynn then tosses the globe away with a rakish grin, and you can hear it bouncing on the floor off-screen. “What flourishes here, what goes on in the Sierra Maestra? I had to find out. Let me take you.”

Despite its low production values, what follows is footage that on its re-release the head of the Cuban National Archive told Kyra Pahlen, the producer’s daughter, he had never seen before.

There are scenes of Flynn turning up in a boat-sized car to gamble among the showgirls of the Hotel Capri; of Batista receiving American guests in the presidential palace; of desperately poor Havana backstreets; and of student riots, with water cannons, police shootings and bodies lying in the gutter.

Such scenes would later be retold in highly stylised form in Soy Cuba (1964), a piece of Russo-Cuban agitprop whose revolutionary message has also long faded but not the enduring beauty of its camerawork. (The movie has been hailed by both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.)

The re-released ‘Cuban Story’

Flynn’s Cuban Story is more roughly composed but makes up for it with period actualité. After the Havana scenes, there is footage of Che Guevara taking Santa Clara, a strategic Cuban town; of the rebels’ continued advance across the island towards Havana; and a magnificent aerial shot of a victorious Castro making his first major public address to an almost hysterically happy crowd after a white dove unexpectedly lands on his shoulder.

Whether Flynn actually spent time, as he claimed, with Castro in the Sierra Maestra giving the logorrheic rebel leader tips on public speaking is doubtful. But Flynn certainly did make it to the América sugar mill, a guerrilla base in the east of the island. And in the Sierra Maestra he certainly did speak to Celia Sánchez, Castro’s aide and sometime lover, who promised to arrange an appointment. According to Castro biographer Robert E Quirk, however, Castro was too busy and drove off.

Flynn tarried for several days in a local bar, waiting for an opportunity that never came, one of many foreign visitors, then and later, hoping to bask in the reflected glory of Cuba’s new popular hero.

Born in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1909, Flynn was a lifelong rebel: as a boy he was expelled from various schools for brawling; in his late teens he set up a series of mining and tobacco ventures in New Guinea, all of which failed; and he claimed to have won his first film part after a producer saw him fight off a crocodile with a bamboo pole. It may be that as star of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Flynn found the plot of a Cuban Robin Hood (Castro) fighting a Cuban Sheriff of Nottingham (Batista) from a Cuban Sherwood Forest (the jungled slopes of the Sierra Maestra) simply irresistible.

As he wrote: “I look for causes, and they wind up with me in a romp.” Or it may be that Flynn made the film as a way of seeking some kind of personal redemption. He talks in the introduction of how “this time I didn’t come to Cuba looking for my usual pastimes ... like living it up, because even men like me, who think they can drown the pains of the world with a couple of good daiquiris, felt there was something very seriously wrong”.

There was indeed something seriously wrong, and not just in Cuba, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen”, as Christopher Columbus famously put it. By the mid-1950s, Flynn was all but washed up. In his memoirs he describes the years 1952 to 1956 as “the period of my decline”, with not much work, nor much money, and only the unlikely mix of alcohol and deep-sea diving for solace. In the Sierra, one of Castro’s rebels asks him: “How come you look so young in the movies and so old now? Tell me.”

“In the States”, writes Flynn, “people who saw me ... said I looked dissipated. Great! I was tired of being called beautiful.” Instead, in Cuba, he sought to rekindle the passion for journalism of his youth. Two decades before, he had reported on the Spanish civil war, and in Cuba he secured a commission from William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal-American newspaper to report from the front line. “What makes anyone think that I am less concerned for the verities of the world than anyone else?” Flynn wrote of these years. “Was it all a prank that I went to Loyalist Spain, that I sided with Castro, that I’ve plumbed the sea depths ... ?”

Castro and Hemingway in 1960

In Our Man in Havana (1958) Graham Greene, another habitué of La Bodeguita, voiced similar sentiments through the character of the vacuum cleaner salesman Wormold. “To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor belt. He didn’t want beauty,” Greene wrote. “He wanted honesty”.

It is perhaps this honesty that Flynn finds in a scene at the end of Cuban Story that is both true and shocking. For once, the viewer does not miss the film soundtrack absent elsewhere: the action takes place largely in silence.

A thin man, one of Batista’s henchmen condemned in a revolutionary trial, smokes his last cigarette and is blessed by a priest. Seven men in a military detail lift their rifles, there is a blast of smoke from their muzzles, and then the figure topples backward into his own grave, suddenly gone.

The film ends shortly afterwards, much as it began, with an address to camera. This time, though, while extolling Cuba’s beauty and the revolution’s bravery, Flynn adds an ominous note. “I’m staying on,” he says. “I want to see that all those sacrifices made by those gallant people haven’t been in vain.” Then he adds, with a dashing smile: “Wouldn’t you?”

Even today, our understanding of the Cuban revolution is infused with the glamour of its early images. In Old Havana, there were glittering casinos, hot show music and seductive showgirls, guerrillas in the mountains and police in the streets. Hence the tourist appeal to this day of bars such as La Bodeguita del Medio; the music from the pre-revolutionary era played by a band in its corner; the Che Guevara T-shirts sold at the airport.

And since then? It is striking how dated the imagery of the revolution has become. Cuban Story was made in 1959. Alex Korda took his famous Guevara photograph in 1960. And the Cuban missile crisis, when the world’s attention was focused on a single event – the Soviet-US stand-off over Cuba – was in 1962. Like its imagery, the rhetoric of the revolution is stuck in the past, unable or unwilling to contemplate the future.

This was plain to see in February this year when Pope Benedict visited the island, and gave an audience to Fidel. Although both men are in their mid-eighties, it was the Pope who appeared alert, and Fidel – dressed in a thick tracksuit despite the heat – who most seemed to belong to another age. His younger brother, Raúl, is now president but is 81 years old. Fidel, at 85, is infirm and nearing his actuarial end. The gerontocracy of Havana’s politburo has become a truer picture of the “revolution” in a country whose real heroes today are its dissidents.

Flynn, who believed in youth and living life to the full, would have disapproved of Castro’s meeting with the Pope if only because of its piety. A cynical hedonist, Flynn was irreligious to the end. His idea of eternal paradise was the sybaritic simplicity of a perfect tropical isle where he could gaze at the kinds of sea skies rendered by his favourite artist, Paul Gauguin, another tropical escapee.

Errol Flynn and Beverly Aadland in ‘Cuban Rebel Girls’ (1959)

“I am resigned to the fact that the primitive life of the simple South Sea islanders is the best,” Flynn wrote towards the end of his autobiography, although, as he added, “it is not for me. I have become too much a cosmopolitan.” Nonetheless, he seems to have found something of this island idyll in Cuba, which was the subject of his last two films. As well as Cuban Story, Flynn also made Cuban Rebel Girls, a pitiful movie starring his 17-year old girlfriend, Beverly Aadland, whom he called his “wood nymph”.

Flynn suffered a fatal heart attack on October 14 1959, on a trip to Vancouver, Canada, two and a half months before the dreadful Cuban Rebel Girls had its New York premiere. By the time of his death, though, Flynn had changed his mind about the revolution: “It is one thing to start a revolution, another to win it, and still another to make it stick, and as far as this writer is concerned it ain’t sticking ... the police state in Cuba is not very different from that of its predecessors.”

Flynn was only 50 when he died. Rebel Girls, a last piece of junk piled atop a once distinguished career, was panned in the posthumous reviews. Cuban Story, a true glimpse of the start of Fidel Castro’s revolution, is a better story but also a nostalgic one of a country now trapped by that same past. For those who think of Cuba as a country rather than a curio, it is also, hopefully, the last time that story need be told anew.

‘Cuban Story’ is distributed by

John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor and author of ‘The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon

Revolutionary fervour: casting Castro

Fidel Castro, described as “the Hollywood dictator” by one wry biographer, earned that title very literally in 1946, writes Peter Leggatt. While studying law at the University of Havana he was cast as an extra for two films produced by Metro Goldwyn-Mayer. In Holiday In Mexico he appears in crowd scenes, and early on in Easy to Wed a young, clean-shaven Castro sits by the pool sipping a drink.

He has remained a directors’ favourite ever since. After Steven Spielberg visited Castro in 2002, it was widely reported that the director described the experience as “the eight most important hours of my life”, although his representatives later claimed the quotation was invented.

Fidel Castro, 1955

Oliver Stone, director of Platoon, JFK and Natural Born Killers, and known for tackling controversial topics, made two documentaries about the former president. The reverential Commandante was released in cinemas in the UK in 2003 but dropped by the American network HBO after the imprisonment of 75 political dissidents and journalists in Cuba.

Returning in order to film a documentary concerning that incident, the director produced Looking for Fidel in 2004 but found, as many seem to, an image of himself. He said afterwards: “I think, honestly, without blowing my horn, he did respect me.” Asked by if he thought Castro warranted the title “movie star dictator”, Stone replied, “Totally. I think it would be a mistake to see him as a Ceausescu. I would compare him more to Reagan and Clinton ... They were both tall and had great shoulders, and so does Fidel.”

Actors, too, have returned feeling profuse. In Peter Whitehead’s 1967 documentary Tonite Lets All Make Love in London Mick Jagger discusses revolution, and Vanessa Redgrave praises Castro’s Cuba. After his visit in 1998, Jack Nicholson gushed, “Fidel Castro is a genius! ... We spoke about everything.” Robert Redford, producer of The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film about the early days of Che Guevara, visited Havana to give a private screening for Guevara’s widow and children. He too met Castro, who seemed, Redford told reporters, in “good health, good humour, good spirit”. The man is the master of good appearances.

In 2000, however, with the release of Before Night Falls, an adaptation, starring Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, of the exiled writer Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir, Julian Schnabel revealed himself as a director resistant to Castro’s obvious charm.

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